Revolution in the hearth of Thai boxing after the Covid KO
No more gamers and harsh neon lights, make way for fancy fighters and lasers – after a 20-month hiatus from coronaviruses, the spiritual home of Thai kickboxing is embarking on a revolution.
On the fighting days before the pandemic, thousands of passionate fans filled Bangkok’s Lumpinee Stadium – the symbolic heart of the ancient and brutal art of Muay Thai.
It wasn’t just the admiration for the skill of the fighters that drew the crowds: on big days, over a million dollars could change hands in betting, in a country where gambling is largely illegal.
Then, in March 2020, it all came to a halt when Thailand’s first Covid-19 outbreak was traced back to the stadium, which was immediately closed.
But rather than throw in the towel, the stadium’s owners – the Royal Thai Army – say they have bounced off the canvas to turn the forced break into an opportunity.
Major General Ronnawut Ruangsawat, deputy head of the stadium, told AFP that the great old arena “was taking advantage of the pandemic to revolutionize itself”.
“The arena has been completely renovated, betting is now prohibited and women are allowed to fight,” he said.
– ‘Clean up sport’ –
Gone are the harsh neon lights that once bathed the ring in a ruthless white glare, and on Saturday fighter Sitthichoke Kaewsanga entered the ring under a shower of ultra-modern red and silver lasers.
Behind him, state-of-the-art giant screens showcased the fight with photos of the 21-year-old and details of his record.
The stands were empty of fans and a lot had changed, but the hooks, kicks and knee kicks were the same as was the backdrop to traditional Thai music performed by a live band.
Lumpinee will welcome fans in January, but with significantly reduced capacity and strict virus prevention rules such as testing and social distancing.
And betting will be banned because the military decided it “leads to too much cheating with players sometimes being paid to lose the fight,” Ronnawut said.
“We want to clean up the sport and we hope other sites in Thailand will follow suit.”
But industry professionals are skeptical of the success of the military’s good intentions.
“They will continue to bet online – gambling is part of Muay Thai’s DNA,” warned Jade Sirisompan of the World Muay Thai Organization, one of the main international federations.
“A lot of players, including many gym owners, make a living from it and can pocket thousands of dollars on a good day.
“They are not going to give up.”
– Taboo fight –
No less revolutionary is the decision to allow female combatants to participate in combat in the main arena of Lumpinee.
For years, women – including fans – have been banned from even touching the ring due to a superstition that their menstruating bodies could break the magic that protected it.
Other Muay Thai sites have been accepting female fighters for some time, but Lumpinee – Lord’s sporting equivalent to cricket or Wembley football – has held up.
After a low-key fight in a backroom in September, Saturday saw two women face off for the first time in the main ring.
After beating Australia’s Celest Muriel Hansen, 21-year-old Thai fighter Kullanat Ornok said: “We are so proud to have been the first women to fight here. We have been fighting for more equality for years.”
Wiping the blood from his head, Hansen, 27, added: “We’ve come a very long way. It was more than just a fight.”
For Kullanat, getting back into the ring to earn money after the long break was just as important.
“I hadn’t fought for almost a year. Before, I was making a hundred dollars a game, and then nothing for months to support my family,” Kullanat said.
– ‘Lost his soul’ –
Deprived of fighting because of the pandemic, thousands of professional boxers – men and the much smaller number of fighters – have returned to their villages.
After so long away from the grueling daily training regimen that the sport demands, many will never come back to the same level and the government has offered no financial support.
Many fighters found themselves with no choice but to take on side jobs. Sitthichoke became a courier for a delivery service.
His five-round victory in Saturday’s fight earned him less than $ 1,000. Before the pandemic, he could win the triple.
“It was really weird fighting in an empty arena. It’s not easy without the energy of the crowd,” he said.
And perhaps inevitably for a place seen as a bastion of tradition, the changes have not been welcomed by everyone.
“We do not recognize anything. The Muay Thai temple has become a large exhibition hall,” lamented Jade Sirisopan after watching a broadcast of the matches.
“He lost his soul.
sde-pit / pdw / pst